A panel of history and religion experts put an upcoming movie about the Crusades in perspective for journalists covering the movie.
Orlando Bloom stars as Balian of Ibelin in the upcoming film “Kingdom of Heaven.” (Twentieth Century Fox)
Three scholars spoke to journalists recently at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., about the facts and fictions of Sir Ridley Scott's historical epic "Kingdom of Heaven," which opens May 6.
"Kingdom of Heaven" stars Orlando Bloom as the real-life Balian of Ibelin, a French knight who helps defend Jerusalem from attacking armies in 1187. The film depicts not only Crusaders in the Holy Land, but also the fragile peace wagered by Christian and Muslim leaders.
Nancy Caciola, associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, said crusaders held various motives for going to the Holy Land.
"Medieval people, like modern people, are motivated by a complex set of interests," said the specialist in medieval European history. They were both selfish and pious.
Younger sons of the gentry class—sons who found themselves invested in the chivalric ideal but without land or much means—were attracted to the Holy Land as a place of potential wealth and power.
They crossed the Mediterranean, Caciola said, stimulating business around the sea, taking with them others in search of a better life—even some prostitutes. Thus, the Crusades tended to draw off a destabilizing segment of society back in Europe.
Of course, Pope Urban II had called on good Christians to recapture Jerusalem from the "infidels" in 1095. Muslim armies had taken the city in 638 A.D., and Urban II, for a variety of reasons, was interested in promoting the Crusades, which he cast as a religious obligation.
"It's a righteous act to go and do God's will on this military expedition," said Caciola, giving voice to the rhetoric of the time. Indeed, in the movie, the constant refrain of the warriors is, "God wills it!"
Donald Spoto, popular speaker and author of 20 books, including The Hidden Jesus: A New Life and Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, characterized the Crusades as a type of "spiritual capitalism" of the times.
Spoto contextualized the Crusades, pointing out that Christianity had been mainly a pacifist religion until the fourth century, when the 313 Edict of Milan made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and gave the West a particular interest in Jerusalem.
Spoto also said the Crusades relied on "mass psychoses" to mobilize the people to travel for such an effort and mission.
Such mobilization was possible, Spoto said, because the crusading mentality was "more about religion than it was about faith."
Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, was careful to draw a distinction between history and art.
"I'm here as a fan of Ridley Scott cinema," said Dabashi, who has written about Islamic medieval history. "As a work of art it is located between historical events … and contemporary issues."
He pointed out that the movie focuses on Christians and Muslims and their battle over Jerusalem, while mostly ignoring the Jewish angle on the city. Dabashi also gave some background for Muslims' interest in Jerusalem—it being where Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended into the heavens.
Caciola pointed out some other ways the film reduced history.
In the movie, the Knights Templar are chiefly responsible for sowing discord between Christians and Muslims. Whereas several other characters act out of goodwill, the knights of this order—tasked with protecting Christians making pilgrimage to Jerusalem—are bent on starting a war.
"Certainly there are some simplifications here," Caciola said, suggesting that the Templars in the movie were probably more representative of the population at large than was Balian, whose tolerance for various religions ran deep.
"These are people who respond to religion as making exclusive truth claims," said Caciola of the Templars and others responsible for civil strife.
Also in the film, characters allude to the Holy Land as "a new world" on several occasions. The panel's scholars seemed to agree that no such rhetoric would be found in medieval literature. (One of Scott's earlier films, however, is "1492," about Christopher Columbus voyaging to the Americas.)
Spoto did use the "new world" discussion to point out the ambiguity of the film's title, "Kingdom of Heaven." To what kingdom does this refer?
The phrase "kingdom of heaven" occurs several times in the New Testament. Jesus used it in the Beatitudes and in several parables. John the Baptist also preached that the "kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Spoto quoted from the Lord's Prayer, specifically the line "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven."
"Heaven does not mean up or later. It means the sphere of the divine," said Spoto. "It means the actions of God at work in human affairs."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie's official Web site is here.